Nashville creates help centers to get struggling English Learners online for school

Pass or Fail

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — English Learners are a specific population struggling as schools shift online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those learning the language make up more than 10% of the nation’s public school students, according to the National Center For Education Statistics

It’s a particular problem in major metropolitan cities such as Nashville.

“It started off really challenging, just figuring out how to communicate. We had a lot of bad numbers and emails. We didn’t have about 80% of our parents. So starting off it was really hard,” explained Clint Wilson, the executive principal at Glenncliff High School in Nashville.

A worker helps get a computer up and running at one of the hubs in Nashville (WKRN Photo)
A worker helps get a computer up and running at one of the hubs in Nashville (WKRN Photo)

For Metro Nashville Public Schools, getting nearly 90,000 students online was hard enough, but when 20% of those students and their families are still learning English, the challenge is even greater.

Molly Hegwood, the executive director for the office of English Learners with the district said it started noticing the problem in the spring.

“We realized that our families needed interpretation support, but they also needed to be able to reach an interpreter if they needed that, and so when a family had tech problems, what were they supposed to do?” Hegwood said.

A hub set up for English Learners to get help with their technology questions (WKRN Photo)
A hub set up for English Learners to get help with their technology questions (WKRN Photo)

With school starting again in the fall, MNPS opened six in-person help sites with interpreters to help register English Learner families. They quickly found it wasn’t enough.

“We’ve got a lot of kids that have never used a computer, so it’s not just ‘I don’t even know where to go to log in,’ it’s ‘I don’t know how to use the mouse. I don’t know what a hyperlink is to go to a connection to join the class live to go to sync learning. I don’t know capital verse lowercase and how to do that in a computer and how to do that in a computer for password and username,'” Wilson explained.

Then, there’s helping with computer issues and assisting with logging on and submitting assignments to the virtual learning platforms, he added.

A worker helps an English Learner log into his laptop in Nashville (WKRN Photo)
A worker helps an English Learner log into his laptop in Nashville (WKRN Photo)

The district then expanded to 10 full-time hubs for any virtual support.

By October, the hubs had seen more than 5,000 families.

“This tech center has really provided that support for the parents and kids that otherwise are gonna miss out. So without this, we have kids sitting at home doing nothing,” Wilson added.

Seeing success, and tackling the next challenge

“I can see myself in these families, especially when they’re coming new to the country,” said Sandra Hurtado who heads Registration and Assessment for MNPS and also speaks Spanish. “Families are happy because they have a person to talk about their issues and answer their questions.”

The numbers reflect that success — more than 99% of the district has logged on for school this year.

However, now that students can get online, teachers are still faced with trying to communicate and engage.

Interpreters work at help sites in Nashville to assist English Learners with technology questions (WKRN Photo)
Interpreters work at help sites in Nashville to assist English Learners with technology questions (WKRN Photo)

“It’s so hard to teach them virtual. They don’t understand, of course, because of the language barriers. You have to actually touch these students in order to get them the support they need,” said Fran Bush, the Board Of Education member over one of the most diverse areas of the city, Antioch.

“There are elements of language acquisition that not having those settings where you can immediately give a student feedback, where they can see you, showing them how to do something or pointing to a picture for that individualized piece has been hard in the virtual environment,” Hegwood expressed.

Now, the district is trying to help teachers get creative.

“I would say, though, that as the teachers, and as the students are growing and learning these platforms, there has been a lot of additional support from teachers. Hearing of teachers doing individualized sessions with students, really reaching out and helping them and their family,” Hegwood added.

Overall, MNPS has been more in touch with English Learner families through this pandemic than it ever has been before. But, Hegwood said some students are still struggling.

“We do have some students who are definitely gonna require additional support when we come back in person,” she concluded.

The district has been phasing students back into the classroom, after a little less than half elected to stay online — some of those are English Learner families.

However, On Oct. 23, MNPS announced it would halt phasing students into the classroom after an increase in COVID-19 cases across the county.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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